packing it up

I started packing our home in a nesting rampage two months before Michael was born. It was spring break and we had just gone to look at a house that we couldn’t make an offer on because ours was just not ready to sell. So I did what I do best. I made a spreadsheet and on it, I listed every room in the house and the to-do’s for each.

There were two items that my seven month pregnant body could accomplish: pack and clean. And I did. Like a madwoman. At the end of my hormone induced purge, I had a fortress of bags for Goodwill and another fortress of boxes stacked in my garage. One month later, the possibility of squeezing a home purchase in before baby came dissipated. So we tabled it for later.

The second sweep of my house came last Christmas. I wanted to take advantage of the time off to pack up the rest of the things we didn’t need every day. And since I still had to pay for daycare, I could send the kids and not feel that guilty about it. I put everything in a box that I wouldn’t need for a few months. I also binge watched all eight episodes of Tidying Up after which, I Marie Kondo’d the shit out of every room. Let me tell you, there was a very special magic in organizing my husband’s bullet and knife collection. I think Marie would have been proud.

In my first attempt at packing and purging, I was more like a tasmanian devil, impulsively and insensitively clearing out drawers, shoving item after item into bags without much thought. But this last time, I put all my things in a pile and then held each thing to ask if it brings me joy or serves an important purpose just like Marie taught me. And when no one was looking, I knelt on the ground and talked to my house just like she does, thanking it for being our home. It was hippy dippy but hey, I’d been talking to the ghosts in there, so might as well chat with the floorboards too.

After I had cleared out each room to the bare bones, I stood and stared at yet another fortress of donation bags and packed up boxes. So much stuff. Probably thousands of dollars of stuff. Most of my rooms have had several iterations of curtains and art on the wall, nicknacks and attempts at making it look a specific way. The sheer number of picture frames that I donated was obscene.

I recognize that there are trends and styles that come and go. The color palate of 2010 is quite different than that of 2019. And Joanna Gaines has not helped in the matter by bringing her particular sense of style to an overpriced section of Target for me to drool over and wonder if the swath of fake goldenrod flowers will be JUST what I need to make me a different person and finally have thick, smooth black hair and skin that tans up nicely in the sun instead of burning and freckling. But it all makes me wonder what the heck I have been trying to accomplish these past few years in accumulating all this stuff?

The nice thing about moving is that it put a temporary halt on my never-ending efforts to make things “just right”. I knew my realtor Lorrie was going to bring a box full of treasures right before we listed our house and those things would make it look “just right” to the potential buyer. My vision was no longer necessary. It needed to be neutral and clean and simple. It waswa small blessing, those handcuffs of “wait, don’t buy that for a house you are moving out of.” I don’t want to forget the feel of them on my wrists as I move into the new place and start trying to transform myself again by way of drapes and trinkets and art.

In Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, she talks in the end about moving out of the White House after eight years. While I am clearly not in the same world as the First Lady of the United States with butlers and chefs and a Chief of Staff, her thoughts on transitioning from one home to another resonated with me. She says, “You’re left in many ways to find yourself all over again.” I wonder if, while building our home over the past ten years (the concept and feel, not necessarily the posts and beams) had been guided more by a need to change who I am rather than to find myself.

Many of the things I’ve chosen to keep are all reminders of who I have become. A small white mug that is trimmed in gold with yellow flowers on it, holds my pens on my desk. This was from Grandma Willson’s house and my sister sent it to me after she passed away. There’s also a painting of three women, each with skirts the colors of jewels. I haggled over it for months with a gentleman who was selling art on a beach in Durban, South Africa. “You won’t be back,” he said each time, wagging his finger at me. “Oh yes I will,” I cajoled in return. And I was, each week until the very last weekend when he finally gave me a better price. He wasn’t super happy about the ordeal.

When I pared it all down into piles of keep or discard, my truth began to emerge. Hopefully this new journey ahead of me will also be one of self-discovery. In the same way that I will learn the nooks and crannies, the idiosyncrasies and beauty of a new home, I hope to learn more about those elements of myself. Ahead of me is an opportunity to set new rhythms and to fill the spaces with colors and expressions of who we are and what we value. Rupi Kaur says we must stop searching for home in others and lift the foundations of the home within ourselves.

Yesterday afternoon, taking a break from packing it all up, I sat on the floor of our bedroom. Now empty, I looked around at it’s echoey vastness. I had slept in that room for ten years but I never had the vantage point of that moment before. At first, there was so much imperfection that caught my eye. A floor vent that didn’t quite fit, dust and fur in every corner, the faint hint of old lady smell in the air. But then I noticed the light coming through the window. It was exactly right and beautiful. And isn’t this the truth of life as well? So much fixing to be done, but the light is everywhere, making people and places feel like home.


cougars

I dreamt last night of cougars. Someone dragged two of them, hunted but not fully dead, into my current home (which is no longer my home) and dropped them by the large gray couch in our living room. They lay there with tails twitching, giant paws and thick fur, their teeth bared and angry. Suddenly, they began to fight with each other and I tried my best to keep them apart, but my hands kept getting precariously close to their giant teeth and claws. I kept looking up at the window, wondering when Mike would come home to help. I was alone, wishing for a gun and also the knowledge of how to use it.

Google tells me that to dream of big cats is a sign of your power and femininity. Sure, I suppose it could be that, my subconscious trying to remind myself that I am made up of my strength rather than my fear. But it could also simply be literal – that I’m terrified of encountering an actual cougar on the new property we are moving to. Because apparently there have been six cougar sightings on the property over the past eight years. Mike didn’t want me to know this information and reluctantly shared it with me the other night. My reaction was dramatic and panicked. I yelled out, “What? No! No! No!!!!”

I don’t know why I signed up to basically live on a savage savannah. This seems ludicrous. My children will now be layered in bells before they go outside. I will learn how to shoot a gun. I think I much prefer my drug deals across the street and the comfort of sirens in the neighborhood. I understand this. Drug dealers are just minding their own business, making ends meet. I suppose you could say the same for cougars too.

My fear is usually a small balloon that grows and deflates in my tummy, but lately it has expanded beyond me. I’m inside it, looking out. “Everything is going to be ok!” my village says to me from the outside. I cup my hand to my ear, “I’m sorry, what? I can’t hear you from in here!” There is so much unknown. The move, my job, what the president will do next, whether shoes will be rejected this morning by the three year old.

I watch my heartbeat and sleep patterns on my Fitbit, the charts resembling a mountain range or a roller coaster, both apt metaphors depending on the moment. I breathe in and out, trying to return to calm. Mike and I try to remember to stop and give each other long hugs, Mila squeezing between us like I used to do with my parents. We all try our best. Meanwhile the cougars are brawling, our fear and strength head to head, trying to claim dominance.

I forget so quickly how every up and down and detour my life has taken has led to precise and serendipitous details of blessing. Most of these, in the form of people who I was meant to know. My mother, my siblings, my husband, my in-laws, my best friends, my children. Chromosomes zippered, seats were assigned, resumes were read. I once overheard someone once say, “All we need is each other…and snacks.” This is probably the truest thing that I know.

Mila just came out of the bedroom and climbed into my lap. She was holding a little magazine for kids that Auntie Meg got her a subscription to. There was a tiger on the front and Mila says to me, “I don’t like Tigers. They are scary.”

I asked her, “What do you do when you are scared?”

And she simply replied, “Say hello.”

Well good morning little Dalai Lama, nice of you to join me this morning.

This idea, of simply saying hello to your fear, is exactly what I’ve been reading about in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She has made peace that fear is always going to be a passenger on the ride and that to not feel it would be un-human. She tells us to write fear a letter, acknowledging its presence but firmly reminding it that it won’t be driving the tour bus. And let’s not forget that along with fear rides our strength. It depends on us as to which one we let take the wheel.

So I guess, for today, I will try to simply say hello.

Hello fear, I see you. Get in and let’s go. And try not to be a backseat driver.

the dark ages

I’ve been living in the dark ages for exactly four and a half days. And by the dark ages, I mean I haven’t had a cell phone but I’ve had the internet and a computer and TV and electricity and a magical box that cooks food in like 30 seconds. So not at all the dark ages. But still…no cell phone!

There are some logistical issues like not having a landline in case of emergencies at the house. But mostly Mike is here and also we are surrounded by hundreds of neighbors who likely have a phone to call 911 on. My brain plays the “what if” game and the only real issue I land on is, “What if I can’t leave my house to ask for help?” Well, it’s likely if I’m incapacitated to the point that I can’t leave my house then I probably can’t get to a hypothetical landline in my house either. So…I believe I’ll be just fine.

The very fact that this has been somewhat hard for me makes me so embarrassed. One thing I’ve noticed is that I seek connection A LOT. Like every 10-15 seconds my hands and brain have this impulse to either look at something or read something or talk to something. Often times, there are humans right in front of me with whom I could easily connect. But these humans are usually my nine month old and three and a half year old so I am also realizing my desire to connect is actually a desire to escape from being present.

My counselor said that it’s not healthy to always think about the past or to think about the future. These mind habits of ruminating and worrying are like leaving the door wide open for anxiety to waltz in and take over. But if you stay present, even the simplest act of noticing what you are seeing/hearing/feeling right now can slam that door shut. Because all the things of the present are fixable. Got an itch? Scratch it. Hungry? Feed yourself. Dirty dishes in the sink? Clean them or let them be. Feeling lonely? Find someone to chat with or hug for at least 20 seconds, so it releases some endorphins.

This is all so much easier said than done. But take that phone out of your hand and you are well on your way. There are no pictures to make you wish your bathroom was a different shade of greige, no comment that makes you wonder if you are good enough. It’s just you, with your butt planted in a chair or your feet on the ground and the world waiting to be noticed. It’s uncomfortable if you haven’t had to be bored in a while. It’s excruciating when you are waiting to be seen by the doctor and every single human around you is staring at a phone.

A less shameful noticing brought on by this five day inconvenience is that I miss having a camera at my fingertips. There are so many moments that I want to capture and never forget. But lately, even when I did have my phone, I’ve been trying to see if I can just let moments be without trying to get my phone out and documenting it. Can I enjoy and notice the beauty of my kid sleeping without it forever being archived on “the Cloud”?  It’s like a tree falling in the woods situation around here. Did anything wondrous even really happen?

I’ve been reading a lot more. It’s funny how I say I don’t have any time to read. I guess I need to change that. I have time to read, I just don’t want to choose that activity over scrolling on my phone and watching TV in bed. I fished out my little book light, which miraculously has not been packed away at this point, and while I nurse Michael to sleep, I read. And as I lay in bed, unable to Chromecast Hulu or Netflix on my bedroom TV anymore, I read. And you know what? Reading begets reading. Now I want to read more because I’m halfway through a book and need to know what happens to Anne Lamott in India.

This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a little technology break. Last January, I did a “rest retreat” from social media using the guidance of a woman who writes a blog called Home Song. She challenged her readers to go thirty days without using social media and instead, do some heart work around resetting your rhythms and intentions. It was SO good and SO hard. One thing I noticed immediately was one of my “rhythms” (which is just a gentler way of saying “habits”) was scrolling when I wake up. To begin, I start by checking the time on my phone, then the light wakes up my brain. Next, I start searching each of the usual suspects – Facebook, then Instagram, then NPR for some news. Anything. This habit formed, or maybe more accurately, wrapped its tentacles around me, when the current president took office. I found myself, every morning, refreshing my feed and searching news headlines to see what happened while I slept. Mostly I was hoping to find words like impeachment or indictment or oops, we’ve made a grave mistake.

During the rest retreat of last year, I still had my physical phone. And so in some ways, I just replaced social media with other ways to scroll. Redfin, a handy little real estate app, was one way. I searched for homes every spare second I had. And Pinterest got another whirl from me, finding the perfect way to stage my new bathroom shelves and dreaming of a hairstyle that would suggest I’m not actually caught in a small twister on the way to work.

Today, my phone is set to arrive by mail. What do I do with this new awareness? It’s no good for my Henny Penny heart. I wonder if there’s any turning back for us as a species? I mean, sooner or later, the generation that can remember life before cell phones will be extinct. Is this how our grandparents felt? Was the world sure to end because people now had a new fangled television in their house? Left alone with my thoughts too long, I find myself exclaiming like King Solomon, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Maybe he had recently taken a rest retreat himself when writing Ecclesiastes.

I’m saying a little prayer now for myself (because I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands to watch people and I’m pretty sure everyone else is doomed…) Please, please, please don’t let this knowledge be erased by the addictive cycle of scroll – veg out – scroll more – repeat!

saying goodbye

I’ve been trying to process the huge life event that’s upon us. We will be moving out of our current home to a new place in anywhere from five to seventeen days. The lack of particulars in this big change have been sending my color-coded-over-planning heart into panicky flutters throughout the day. I’m steadying myself with king size Butterfingers, chats with friends, and asking one million questions to our ever-available and amazing realtors Randy and Lorrie.

My counselor reminded me the other day that leaving a home is much like the grieving process. I don’t know what step I’m on right now but I’ve been doing a lot of weepy reflection. Is this the depression stage? It’s not that I want to keep this house over the new one. But I am caught in a space between letting go of our first true home, one that we have (ok, mostly Mike has) put blood, sweat and tears into and planning for a new one that will require an accepting heart of come as you are.

As I look through pictures, I’m struck by how these spaces hold our precious memories. It’s been the setting of so many of our stories. So in an act of saying farewell, I thought I’d gather some pictures to look upon the spaces that have held us. A celebration of life, I suppose.

We bought this house almost ten years ago. It was a 1970s museum, previously owned by an elderly couple named Agnes and Harold Frasier. Harold left a literal treasure chest full of his cuff links, coins, and blingy rings in the attic. He must have been a dapper man. And Agnes, well, she left her mark on every room with layers upon layers of drapery and valences and an old lady smell that still escapes from the original cupboards sometimes. Even though I’m not super convinced of the existence of ghosts, I’m pretty sure that Agnes is still present here. Over the years, I believe we’ve made peace with her over changing the home that she so painstakingly designed. I’ve also developed a little story that she didn’t have any grandchildren, so I invited her to watch over my kids. It’s creepy and weird but how I’ve decided to deal with the possibility of her haunting. That, and I don’t look in reflective surfaces when I’m home alone.

I walked into this house with visions of changing everything. And I nearly succeeded, leaving every room at least slightly remodeled. I’m really good at demolition, at purging and destroying. But building and redesign aren’t my strength. So we lived nearly ten years in a three-quarter renovated house. I don’t recommend this and hope it’s not the story of our new place.

I know a house is just a physical structure. Four walls and a roof. But our home has been a place of inexplicable beauty and joy. From our neighbor Minh, who brings us pears each summer, to the delight of a toddler seeing her first snowfall. This place has offered us discovery and promise and actual rainbows.

It has also been a place of grief, where we lost two small flickers of life. It holds the yellow linoleum floor that I lay face down on and screamed out “No!” when I began to bleed. It’s where the toilet flushed and my heart broke into a million pieces.

This is my favorite tree, the crab apple tree, that Mikey wanted to cut down. This is because it’s overgrown and, after a week or two of the most glorious fuchsia blooms, it covers our yard in dead, pinkish-white petals like an early winter snow in Michigan. It reminds me of the tree I had in my yard growing up. I climbed that tree religiously each summer, getting braver and braver with every high branch I conquered. I also fell out of it once, hanging upside down with my heal stuck in the crotch of one of its branches and landing on my head when I yanked it free. I told Mike that he can’t cut this tree down because I want to climb it. “When will you ever climb it?” he asked. “Right now,” I replied and, in a silly act of obstinance, I went and climbed in it. I have climbed it a few more times over the years, but only to save it from Mike’s chainsaw like a Green Peace activist.

Our home has been a new beginnings place. Where I labored in the early hours of birth, the place to which we brought our babies home from the hospital, and where a permanent trench formed on my side of the bed while I healed in the postpartum weeks.

This is our yard, a very stubborn yard, that we’ve toiled in for days on end to bring out its beauty. In spite of my uncanny ability to kill plants, some have thrived reminding me that some living things are just plain bad ass and resilient. A good metaphor for life.

The windowsill in the kitchen has the very best light in the house. This room was built by my hard-working hubby and it’s the place where I’ve shown my love through cookies and soups and hundreds of roast chickens over the years. And for a while, the sink was the only bathtub Mila ever knew.

Here is the infamous bathroom, the one that finally came to fruition after several patient years. Michael’s face says exactly how I felt when it was completed.

These are the bedrooms where we do a lot of not sleeping. The beds will go but the walls will remain, holding someone new while they snuggle or play or dream.

These dirty dirty floors have been swept one million times. I have the sounds of everyone’s footsteps memorized, including the clicking of the dogs’ nails and the terrifying tread of toddler feet, which is alarmingly loud in the middle of the night. We’ve danced and we’ve stomped on them, scratched them and some of us have even peed on them.

And soon, we will offer up this house to someone else to grow and love and build in. I hope that I will greet our new home with the same reflective understanding that I leave this one.